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We're Holding Our Own: The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
July 13, 2023 3:03 am

We're Holding Our Own: The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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July 13, 2023 3:03 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, as big freighters go, she was bigger than most with a crew and captain well seasoned...but on November 10th, 1975 she and her 29 man crew were sent to the bottom of Lake Superior. Ric Mixter of Lake Fury tells the story.

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For each person living with myasthenia gravis, or MG, their journey with this rare condition is unique. That's why Untold Stories Life with myasthenia gravis, a new podcast from iHeartRadio in partnership with Argenics, is exploring the extraordinary challenges and personal triumphs of underserved communities living with MG. Host Martine Hackett will share these powerful perspectives from real people with MG so their experiences can help inspire the MG community and educate others about this rare condition.

Listen to find strength in community on the MG journey on the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. You're gonna start getting sad and wishy and complicated. She's not dead, she's just having an existential crisis. Starring Margot Robbie. Yay! And Ryan Gosling. I'm just a dude.

Ken isn't something we're worried about. What? Barbie, only in theaters July 21st. Rated PG-13. Maybe inappropriate for children under 13. This is our American Stories, and our next story comes to us courtesy of Rick Mixter, a shipwreck researcher and diver who's explored over 130 shipwrecks, one of which is the subject of this story on the most famous shipwreck on the Great Lakes.

Here's our own Monty Montgomery with the story. When we think of the word lake, we often think of a calm, placid, and small body of water. But the Great Lakes are anything but that.

People underestimate them. You know, literally they think they're ponds. They think that they're much smaller than the ocean. And the truth is that the Great Lakes span over 1,000 miles. You know, Lake Superior is immense. And unfortunately, it has these jagged shoals that, unlike the ocean, it's confined. So these shoals bounce waves back and forth, and these confused waves on the Great Lakes tend to really mess with ships and make it very difficult to navigate in a storm.

And the results of these confused seas have often been deadly. There's a huge argument on how many shipwrecks are on the Great Lakes because it's really hard to judge. Most of the time we would put it to, you know, insurance settlements. Let's look at Lloyd's of London or other places that paid out. But we don't know if they were recovered. If you said on the bottom, most people would probably throw out a number between 6,000 and 10,000 shipwrecks that are still on the bottom. But out of all these shipwrecks, there's one that has been etched into the collective consciousness of the people of the Great Lakes, the Edmund Fitzgerald.

And there's a reason for that. Fitzgerald is famous for two words, Gordon Lightfoot. It's literally a wreck that I think would have been forgotten if not for a Canadian songwriter who took the story and turned it into a seven and a half minute song that went to number two on the charts. And once that happened, it became enamored not only by the people of the Great Lakes, but it became their song, played every November. Every time you turn on the radio, somebody plays it at that time because of the gales of November and to remember the crew.

Nobody argues that it's not Gordon Lightfoot. It is the largest shipwreck on the Great Lakes by a couple hundred feet. The Fitzgerald was 729 feet long and lost with all hands, which was part of the mystery, I think, that captivated even Gordon Lightfoot.

And that's why it kind of became a story, how in 1975 could you have a 700-foot freighter with 29 men completely vanish? Fitzgerald was one of the last of the ships built in Michigan, which we used to have an amazing shipbuilding prowess. We were number one on the Great Lakes for years, just a massive ship. I mean, it was the flagship for Columbia Transportation, so when it was launched, not only was she the biggest, but she was well appointed. She had the best skipper, according to Columbia, the best cook, because they would entertain many of the steel companies like National Steel's president or bigwigs would come on board, bring their family along, and it would have inside, J.L. Hudson Company, the famous Hudson store, had all of the appointments inside, so your beds, all of the furniture, which had to be custom-cut to fit the canner of the floor of the Fitzgerald, were slightly rounded, they had to cut the legs of the beds to fit correctly, so it was the flagship, it was the ship that everybody wanted to be assigned to, and it was certainly the ship that gave out many rides to people. It was also fast, they called it the Toledo Express because it made that run so quickly. And for the next 17 years, the Edmund Fitzgerald would continue to make that trip from Superior, Wisconsin, to Detroit, laden with iron ore. There was no reason to expect that on November 9, 1975, her trip under the command of Captain Ernest McSorley would go any differently. It was a Sunday, and it was in Superior, Wisconsin, on a beautiful day, and Jack McCarthy, the first mate, would be in charge of telling the guys, you know, all the loading, make sure that the ship was loaded evenly, in which they would go underneath a gravity-fed dock, and it would actually spill these round taconite pellets into the cargo hold, which they took 26,000 tons.

This is where Gordon Lightfoot was wrong on a couple of accounts in his song. He said fully loaded for Cleveland, but it wasn't fully loaded. It was less than two-thirds loaded because she was actually going to River Rouge near the area to the Zug Island, and in order to get into that slip, she couldn't carry all of her cargo because she would hit bottom in the Detroit River.

So not fully loaded, not going to Cleveland, but actually going into the Detroit area with a load of iron ore that would eventually become automobiles. And they take off into a beautiful day, and as they do, McSorley in the pilot house actually sees that a big storm is coming up. He's got a radio that he can get reports through, and he's a weather ship, so he takes his observations and adds them to the weather reports to help forecasters try to develop where the storm's going to go.

And it's quickly ascertained that he's going to get a storm that will come right through from Oklahoma all the way up to Marquette, and so he starts to calculate how long that would take and uses the forecasts that he's given as well and has to determine what he's going to do. But McSorley was a well-seasoned captain, and the coming storm likely didn't faze him too much, despite some of the reservations he may have had on the ship. McSorley had been a skipper that had been on the Great Lakes for years and years and worked his way up to the Edmund Fitzgerald.

He was very stern from the people that I talked to, very matter-of-fact guy. As we talked to a third mate in my documentary called The Fitzgerald Investigations, he remembered going through a Lake Superior storm with just 10-foot waves where the Fitzgerald would flex so crazily, unlike any ship he had been on, and he looked at McSorley and he said, man, should it be bending like this? And McSorley said, sometimes it scares me. So literally, he knew that this ship was different than other ships, he knew that it would flex in these storms, but because as a part-time job he did hull inspection, he was very well-versed in the strength of these ships, and he unfortunately pushed the Fitzgerald way beyond its means. As I did the investigation documentary, I found the Coast Guard looked into it. They looked at 10 years at the Sioux Locks, the worst storms that ever happened up until 1975, and the one ship that kept pushing every storm and made it through the locks during those gales was the Edmund Fitzgerald. So he was a rough-weather skipper, he pushed the heck out of the ship, and it eventually broke because of it. So the Fitzgerald pushed forward, and soon they would get company to ride out the storm with, in the form of the Arthur M. Anderson, another laker captained by Bernie Cooper.

And Cooper also is, you know, these guys are experienced meteorologists, they have to be, their lives depend on it, and they start to figure out when the storm will come and what they're going to do. As they pass Isle Royale, they've got a place that they can hide there from these northwest winds that are starting to build. They continue going, but they take the northern route. The northern route goes closer to Canada, jokingly some of the sailors call that the scenic route because otherwise you might not ever see land. As you go around the Keweenaw would be the last spot as you make that long haul past Marquette and make your way to the Sioux Locks and Whitefish Bay. But as they're going up, they go all the way past Otterhead in a second spot that they could throw at their anchor. Because it's so close to the Canadian shore, the waves can't build there, so you're pretty safe. You could wade it out, but they didn't. They decided they were going to make it for Whitefish Bay. They thought that the storm would take an extra hour to get to them, and they were wrong. As they got past Caribou, it was the worst the storm could be, and they were in the absolute worst place they should be on Lake Superior where those winds now could build the entire length of the lake and crash into the ship and crash into them in the stern and on their starboard side. So if they had any problems at all, they were going to get into real trouble there, and that's what happened to Fitzgerald.

? ? And you're listening to Rick Mixter tell the story of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. As he put it, how in 1975 could you have a 729-foot freighter with 29 men completely vanish? The answer to that question, you'll hear it after these messages here on Our American Story. ? For each person living with myasthenia gravis, or MG, their journey with this rare neuromuscular condition is unique. That's why Untold Stories Life with myasthenia gravis, a new podcast from iHeartRadio in partnership with Argenics, is exploring the extraordinary challenges and personal triumphs of underserved communities living with MG. Host Martine Hackett will share powerful perspectives from people living with the debilitating muscle weakness and fatigue caused by this rare disorder. Each episode will uncover the reality of life with myasthenia gravis. From early signs and symptoms to obtaining an accurate diagnosis and finding care, every person with MG has a story to tell. And by featuring these real-life experiences, this podcast hopes to inspire the MG community, educate others about this rare condition, and let those living with it know that they are not alone. Listen to Untold Stories Life with myasthenia gravis on the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. I've thought about trying medication for my anxiety before, but I don't know where to start.

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Controlled substances like Adderall are not available for purchase. And we continue with our American stories and our story of the Edmund Fitzgerald. When we last left off, Captain McSorley and his crew were battling the brutal storm on Lake Superior alongside another ship, the Arthur M. Anderson.

Here's Rick Mixter with the rest of the story. As the Fitz is going past Caribou, it realizes it has some kind of problem. They looked down the deck and they could see that at least one of their vents was missing.

These look like mushrooms that are on the deck, and they're very large and they're used to equalize the pressure below decks. But, of course, Fitz has two-thirds of a cargo in there. Well, as he noticed that one of those is missing, he also finds out from his engineers that he's taking on water, so they're running their pumps to try to keep that water out.

He also mentions something really unique. He says our fence rail is down, and that has been interpreted in a couple different ways. The fence rail could be the guide rails that are on the side of the ship that perhaps some piece of debris came on, smashed its vent off, and also damaged that part of the rail. So he's radioing back and forth to the Anderson that he's got these problems, and then all of a sudden mentions his radars are out. And he was worried because McSorley had noticed that out of Whitefish Bay there were several saltwater ships, including a big freighter called the William Clay Ford, and another one that were trying to get out of Whitefish Bay, and he worried he'd get into a collision situation in the blinding snow that was happening. So he asked the Anderson to keep an eye out for them because his radars were out.

So he's going blindly into this storm. The Anderson is now trying to close the distance because the Fitzgerald, being a faster boat, was several miles ahead of them. The last broadcast came from Morgan Clark, the first mate on board the Anderson, who asked the Fitzgerald, How are you making out with your problems?

And the Fitzgerald, McSorley, answered back, We are holding our own. And unfortunately, in a blinding snow squall, the Fitzgerald disappears. It disappears from radar because the blinding snow also blinded the radar out. When it finally clears, Anderson can't see the Fitzgerald, and now their job is trying to notify the Coast Guard that a 729-foot freighter is missing. The last time that you talked to him, at what time that was, really? I asked him how he was making out with his problem. He said he lost those vents and he had a lift, and he said he was holding his own.

The last time I talked with him, he said he was holding his own, and that's the last time I've lost contact after that. Nobody wanted to believe that the Fitzgerald was gone, especially the Coast Guard, and we're very lucky that immediately the Coast Guard started recording all of these conversations. So we actually have the conversations as the Cooper is trying to tell the Coast Guard that they have missed the Fitzgerald. So here the Anderson is now making the safety of Whitefish Bay after now 29 guys have been lost, a massive steel modern freighter has been lost to the storm, and they call the Coast Guard who tells them, We don't have a ship that can go out there. So the Coast Guard has to convince the captain of the Anderson that just witnessed this freighter sinking to turn around, come out of the safety of Whitefish Bay, and go back into that killer storm, and he definitely did not want to do that.

Right from the radio broadcast, we hear Cooper say, there's going to be 2 of us on the bottom. He really believed going back out there was going to be a bad mistake, but he knew he was the only choice, so they went back out there. At that time it was 60 mile-an-hour winds.

It was going to take him 2 hours to go 17 miles with those intense winds blowing right against them. I don't think they believed that anybody would survive it. With big 30-foot waves and water temperatures that were just above freezing, there really wasn't much chance, and unfortunately it was a futile attempt, but I think that that was the spirit of the lakes.

You do what you can. First make sure your crew is going to survive it, and then if you can safely do it, you go out there and make the rescue, and he did to the truest tradition of sailors, try to find those guys, but unfortunately, as we know, nobody survived, and no bodies were found. Then came the task of actually finding the final resting place of the Fitzgerald on the bottom of Lake Superior.

It didn't take them very long, so they used this robot called the Curve 3 to not only find it, but to secure it. The Curve 3 came out, and they flew that down to 550 feet, and as they saw the bow, they noticed it was upright, but as they went around the stern section, over 100 feet away, they noticed that the lettering was upside down, and the Coast Guard investigators immediately thought the ROV or the robot was inverted, and the pilot said no, it's not. This is the back section, 200 feet of the Edmund Fitzgerald that was upside down. So the horrible act of it tearing apart somewhere in the water column actually flipped the entire stern upside down, and the bow section is resting proudly upright on the bottom where you can actually see every deck in the pilot house as well. And there the Fitzgerald sat, a gravesite for her 29 crew, none of which were ever recovered.

Immediately there were questions on why this modern lake freighter sank, and these questions still brew today. Did she hit bottom? Did she get hit by a rogue wave?

Or did her hatch covers cave in? Answers were hard to find as the wreck site was soon protected by the Canadian government at the request of the families of the victims. So very few people have actually seen the wreck.

But in 1994, Rick did. In 94 we took the submersible Delta, which had been famous for diving the Lusitania, and we went down in this two-man yellow submarine, and I was the third dive on the Delta expedition. When you dive a shipwreck, you get down to it, and if you're free diving it or you're doing it on scuba equipment where you don't have a submarine around you, you can actually go up to it and touch it. You know, the cold steel and the immense size of these vessels is what really becomes apparent to you. The Fitzgerald was surreal in the fact that I was down 500 feet. The light stopped at about 250, so it's pitch black beyond whatever you have on board your submarine, which we had lots of lights.

So it becomes very surreal. As you look through the porthole, you can see glimpses of the ship, but not the whole ship at the same time. So as we went past the name, the letters are over a foot and a half tall. I'm trying to remember exactly how big they were, but that's what first captured my mind was, it said Edmund Fitzgerald, and it was horribly torn up on the port side. So the collision with the bottom had just ripped apart the spar deck from the side of the ship, and the name had been scratched up and beat up so badly that it took my breath away.

And as we went around the bow, and to see the bow was actually bent almost 90 degrees, the force of the storm was just incredible. And then the tiny details as you'd see a blanket hanging out of the pilot house, or you go up to the top and the radars that were Panasonic on top, it's a plastic, like just a little sliver of plastic, ripped off and the wires were just there. So you start to piece together the story from that. Each one of those pieces not only awed me, but you were just so excited to see this great shipwreck. And then when I came up, we actually had power left in the submarine, and so it was decided that the owner of the tugboat, who we were expecting from, would actually get to take his son down there for a look. And we were eating lunch, and we got a report from the submarine through the sonophone, the sound waves from the, it's like a radio that goes through water, and we found out that they found a missing crewman. So we went from this incredible high of me just visiting the most famous shipwreck on the Great Lakes, the largest shipwreck on the Great Lakes at 550 feet down, to a horrible low of, God, there are 29 people that were lost there. You lose that connection, I think because you're in the sub and you're safe. When you're diving, it's really apparent that these shipwrecks are, you know, this is a final grave because you have this water around you and you've got to be so careful when you're scuba diving to do that.

I never lost that connection. But I think I did on the Fitzgerald because I felt so protected in the submarine, but that immediately was erased when we found a first missing crewman, a body lying off of the bow of the shipwreck wearing a life jacket. There's nothing more sobering than that, and instantly we were transported back to this is a grave site. piano plays softly The day after the wreck, the Mariners Church in Detroit rang its bell 29 times for each of the crewmen lost, and this ceremony continues in Michigan today with the ship's actual bell, raised in 1995 and kept at Whitefish Point. But for the families of those lost on November 10, 1975, the Edmund Fitzgerald is more than just a song. It's a tragedy that will always be remembered. For Our American Stories, I'm Monty Montgomery. And great job as always to Monty Montgomery, a terrific job producing that piece, and a real special thanks to Rick Mixter, who as you can tell, doing what he does is more than a vocation.

It's his life, the story of the Edmund Fitzgerald here on Our American Stories. piano plays softly There are some things in life you just can't trust, like a free couch on the side of the road. Ooh, you never know. Or the sushi rolls from your local gas station. Ooh, you never know. Or when your kid says they don't need the bathroom before the trip. But there are some things in life you can trust, like the HP Smart Tank Printer with up to 2 years of ink included and outstanding print quality.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-07-13 05:06:56 / 2023-07-13 05:17:02 / 10

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